Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Great places to hike and run in Florida: Torreya State Park
(Caption: Jeff and daughter ready to hike the Weeping Ridge Trail, March 2008)
Since I'm still on injured reserve and don't have any actual running to report on, I thought I might get back to my original intent, part of which was to blog about trails I've explored.
Back in March, I went camping with my family at Torreya State Park, way up near the Georgia and Alabama borders. We went there for the scenery and we were not disappointed. Anyone who thinks of Florida as just flat should see this park - it is mountainous by comparison with south Florida.
Our first hike was on the relatively short Weeping Ridge Trail, which leads to a view of a small waterfall, a rare treat in Florida. [Regrettably most of the trail photos on this weekend trip were taken with my new camera phone and did not come out well. It's not too hot on landscape photos or anything more than 10 feet away.] We followed this up with a tour of the Gregory House overlooking the Appalachicola River from surprising heights. The are two hiking trails in the park, each 5-7 miles long (I forget the exact distances but you might be able to find them online), and I opted for a solo run on the 6-7 mile Torreya Challenge Trail loop.
The Torreya Challenge
The park ranger and park literature both cautioned me sternly to take food and large amounts of water, not to start to late in the day, and to tell someone that I was going. I was really excited to do the loop as a trail run. My long run was 9+ miles at this point, so I figured I could handle 6+ miles of hilly terrain with a little walking. The thought of being 3+ miles away from the trailhead (already in a semi-remote area for Florida), on an unfamiliar trail, with a limited water supply, and the possibility of encountering poisonous snakes, had me somewhat nervous but pretty stoked. The word "challenge" in the trail name was a big reason I chose this trail rather then the other park trail, I had to admit to my wife, who was not surprised by this latest wacky trail run idea. On the two previous weekends, I had run in the Trout Creek 15K and run on the Florida Trail through the Juniper Prairie Wilderness.
I got up early so I could get my run in and still have a full day for family activities. I brought along a fanny pack with my camera phone (no cell phone reception though - if I hurt myself on the trail I would be getting myself out, or waiting for someone to come along), trail map, sunglasses, hat, Clif bar, whistle, handheld water bottle, and pepper spray. According to the park, I was bringing insufficient food and water, but I was planning on running, not hiking for hours with a heavy backpack.
Living in a flat-to-rolling part of Florida for the last decade, I was almost totally unprepared for the hills on this trail. I don't have any tools for calculating elevation changes, but this trail was almost relentlessly up and down. The uphills were so steep that I had to stop and walk multiple times. I was glad there was no one there to see that. In fact I saw no one on the whole loop, though I passed a campsite area behind trees and heard voices once.
After one big hill, I stopped to munch my Clif bar and considered whether I was getting in over my head and should turn back before I got far enough in that completing the loop would be shorter. Would I admit defeat to my family? Nope, I was going on. The downhills (for every up there was a down) were so steep that I had to stop and walk some of those, for fear of either careening out of control or abusing my quads by braking too much. In between this huffing and puffing, there were about ten shallow stream crossings, most of them with delightful little bridges, but three of which required wading or jumping (I could just clear them by jumping). I surprised three groups of deer (seven in all) but could not get my camera out fast enough. The camera phone turned in a poor showing on this run actually, which meant I would be going with the heavier real camera on future trail runs. There were a few turns were I had to be careful I was still on the trail, but I never strayed more than a few feet. No snake encounters as it turned out. The trail followed the edges of two ridges with steep drops, which felt more like North Carolina to me than Florida. After an hour of running and 45 minutes of walking mixed in, I had completed the Challenge with a big tired grin on my face.
We also made a side trip to Florida Caverns State Park, which I highly recommend. It's unlike anything else on public lands in Florida. You can tour the main caverns, which are not quite as cold as caves farther north (60s and damp when I was there), but don't miss the outdoor trails, one of which, the Tunnel Cave trail, is aptly named and quite unique (watch your head if you're over 5 feet tall though - I clunked mine). The camping area was closed while we were there, so we had to drive over from Torreya.
Aside from some noisy camping neighbors (playing music past 9 pm, etc.), and surprisingly early-in-the-season mosquitoes at the campsite, we had a great weekend. Floridians - try Torreya for some exposure to real hills. Be advised the park is some distance from civilization (no stores, restaurants, hospitals, etc. within miles) and pack accordingly.